AskDefine | Define Kierkegaard

Dictionary Definition

Kierkegaard n : Danish philosopher who was the founder of existentialism (1813-1855) [syn: Soren Kierkegaard, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard]

Extensive Definition

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (, but usually Anglicized as [ˈkɪəkəgɑːd, ˈkɪɚkəgɑɹd]; ) (5 May, 181311 November, 1855) was a prolific 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian. Kierkegaard strongly criticized both the Hegelianism of his time, and what he saw as the empty formalities of the Danish church. Much of his work deals with religious themes such as faith in God, the institution of the Christian Church, Christian ethics and theology, and the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices. His early work was written under various pseudonyms who present their own distinctive viewpoints in a complex dialogue. Kierkegaard left the task of discovering the meaning of the works to the reader, because "the task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted". Subsequently, many have interpreted Kierkegaard as an existentialist, neo-orthodoxist, postmodernist, humanist, individualist, etc. Crossing the boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature, Kierkegaard came to be regarded as a highly significant and influential figure in contemporary thought.


Early years (1813–1841)

Søren Kierkegaard was born to an affluent family in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. His mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund Kierkegaard, had served as a maid in the household before marrying Søren's father. She was an unassuming figure: quiet, plain, and not formally educated. She is not directly referred to in Kierkegaard's books, although she affected his later writings. His mother died on July 31, 1834, age 66.
His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a melancholic, anxious, deeply pious, and fiercely intelligent man. Convinced that he had earned God's wrath, he believed that none of his children would live past the age attained by Jesus Christ, that of 33. He believed his personal sins, such as cursing the name of God in his youth and possibly impregnating Ane out of wedlock, necessitated this punishment. Though many of his seven children died young, his prediction was disproved when two of them surpassed this age: Søren and Peter Christian Kierkegaard, a Lutheran bishop several years Søren's senior. This early introduction to the notion of sin and its connection from father and son laid the foundation for much of Kierkegaard's work (particularly Fear and Trembling). Despite his father's occasional religious melancholy, Kierkegaard and his father shared a close bond. Kierkegaard learned to explore the realm of his imagination through a series of exercises and games they played together.
Kierkegaard's father died on August 9, 1838 at the age of 82. Before his death, he asked Søren to become a pastor. Søren was deeply influenced by his father's religious experience and life and felt obligated to fulfill his wish. Two days later, on August 11, Kierkegaard wrote: "My father died on Wednesday. ''I had so very much wished that he might live a few years longer, and I look upon his death as the last sacrifice which he made to his love for me; ... he died for me in order that, if possible, I might still turn into something. Of all that I have inherited from him, the recollection of him, his transfigured portrait ... is dearest to me, and I will be careful to preserve [his memory] safely hidden from the world."''
Kierkegaard attended the School of Civic Virtue, where he excelled in Latin and history. In 1830, he went on to study theology at the University of Copenhagen, but while there he was drawn more towards philosophy and literature. At university, Kierkegaard wrote his dissertation, On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, which was found by the university panel to be a noteworthy and well-thought out work, but a little too wordy and literary for a philosophy thesis. Kierkegaard graduated on October 20, 1841 with a Magister Artium, which today would be designated a Ph.D. With his family's inheritance of approximately 31,000 rigsdaler, Kierkegaard was able to fund his education, his living, and several publications of his early works.

Regine Olsen (1837–1841)

Another important aspect of Kierkegaard's life (generally considered to have had a major influence on his work) was his broken engagement to Regine Olsen (1822–1904). Kierkegaard met Regine on 8 May, 1837 and was instantly attracted to her, and she to him. In his journals, Kierkegaard wrote about his love for Regine:
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